A Winter's Tale

Letter From Minnesota

The funeral home looked better on the outside. The solid, dignified impression given by the white pillars standing guard outside the large double doors disappeared when you stepped inside and walked on old carpeting into a dimly lit room with dark wood paneling. Across the room were a pair of lime-green armchairs embosse^l with tarnished silver studs. One of the chairs held an old guy—probably the custodian. He was up for some company, and I wasn't in a hurry. He brought out hot, strong coffee. I gulped down as much as I could without scalding myself, hoping the warmth would raise my body temperature.

Up in northern Minnesota, he told me, they bury the dead in vaults above ground during the winter, Down here in tropical St. Paul, however, everyone goes underground. "Backhoes, power hammers, whatever it takes," he said cheerfully, explaining that, after machines pierced the frost line, winter grave digging offered no special challenges.

"Are you the pastor?" he asked, nodding at the thick black book I held in the hand that wasn't holding the coffee. I shook my head. "I was his social worker." He nodded again: "Nice of you to come." He handed me a 2001 calendar card that, right under the funeral chapel's name and the American flag, listed him as the director. We talked a while longer, then he excused himself. He came back and said, "They're out there, in the...

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